Season 3, Episode 20
10 October, 1998
Reviewed by SLK
RATING: 4 chakrams
SCRIBES & SCROLLS: Written by Terry Winter, Edited by Jim Prior, Directed by Andrew Merrifield.
PASSING PARADE: Bruce Campbell (Autolycus) and John Brazier (Tarsus).
STORY SO FAR: Xena and Gabrielle help Autolycus steal back a stolen statue of peace so he may regain his title as King of Thieves.
DISCLAIMER: Upon completion of the filming of this episode, Autolycuss scuba gear was placed on display at the Athens Diving Institute for the education and enjoyment of future generations.
Some strange height adjustments in the Statue of Pax before and after it was stolen; Gabrielle carefully tending to the welfare of the wharfmaster, counting how long hes been under Xenas pinch while she argues with Autolycus (he made it with a second to spare!); the look on Gabrielles face when she first sights "Ersa", followed by a mole lot of fascination; Xenas change into her Warrior Princess outfit faster than most superheroes can get into phonebooths.
"Nothing besides letting you live inside my body while I let you risk my life to steal back your shapely corpse, all the while having to endure Gabrielle whining and crying about how much she misses Xena..." Autolycus, King of Guiltrips explaining to Xena why she should do as he asks and give her chakram the day off.
"You cant melt the statue down.... because it gets gooey. I dont pay for goo." Gabrielles technical explanation.
"This plan will go to Tartarus in a reed boat if hes not here." Call me sentimental but Gabrielles line immediately conjured up images of that dark spawn of Tartarus, Hope, in her reed boat. Subconscious mind works in mysterious ways, hey Gabs?
"Come on, come play with me, huh?" Xena to the hire-a-thugs, who really should learn by now if a womans smiling at them like that, taunting them like that and fighting them like that, perhaps its time to get the heck outta there.
Gabrielle: "Thats what makes doing work like this worthwhile."
Autolycus: "Yes, half naked men screaming through the square, I see your point."
Maybe four chakrams is a little harsh for an episode with a fairly rompy storyline and a trotted out fave guest star which would certainly do the Herc mob proud. But I, like many Xenites, have come to expect a little more from Xena and acting is one of those quibbles we get thingy about. Oh yeah, and consistency (as much as one can expect from a time leaping, sexually ambiguous, alive, dead, alive Warrior Princess).
But this episode really stunk for me because it didnt need to. The story was salvageable, but it was let down by a couple of things.
One thing I could not stomach was Lucys awful Bronx(?) Nanny Fine accent (yeah, darl, well do lunch) which was only marginally better than her wailing, her baby talk and her blubbering. And the mole was so out there, I, almost cheered aloud when Gabrielle plucked that sucker off.
Was she funny? Yeah, in places. Did it make sense for a Warrior Princess to be this good an actress when the role she was playing was going so far against the grain as to be a personal insult to her? No way.
I thought her miraculously doey-eyed, instantly convincing portrayal of Miss Amphipolos was surprising enough when she didnt like the idea to begin with. But to be Esra would be something youd expect Xena to sneer at. I mean really hate. So much so her portrayal would be as convincing as her night dolled up with Caesars party guests in When In Rome... In that Rome ep, she remained steely eyed and unimpressed and undisputably the woman that she is, despite her fine clothing or what she was asked to be. Here, I think Lucy Lawless, in her enthusiasm for showing off her acting range, sometimes forgets shes supposed to be Xena playing Esra, rather than Lucy playing Esra. And Xena was enjoying it way too much for me to buy it.
You could argue that this was all an extraordinarily convincing act because Xena owed Autolycus a favour for the body borrowing in The Quest. That only explains her motivation to do it - not her effortless ability. Or her willingness to utterly debase herself with that caterwauling which was most unXena, (although doubtlessly very Esra). If I was the bard, Id have taken one look at that astonishing sight and decided Xena was the one whose life was really meant for the stage. What an untapped talent, shed be thinking.
Throughout this episode what niggled me most was the basis of humor. First, there were the sight gags: Autolycus added a new string to his bow by taking over from Joxer in the fall-down idiotically gag department. In a diving helmet (filled with holes!) he falls clang over backwards as everyone walks away. Not quite what Id expect from Autolycus but, well, dang those hole-filled diving hats are heavy, huh?
There was also a heavier than usual preponderance of insult gags. But, unlike normally, where the baddy threatens Xena or his own men, in this ep its Xena, our neer do wrong hero, suddenly mouthing off at her dearest friends - albeit while playing Esra. After awhile, even knowing Xena was only doing it to be convincing, I was beginning to squirm, because Im unused to seeing her resort to such methods, when less personal ways to prove her authenticity would have been just as easy.
Heres a sample:
Xena to Gabrielle: They say you used to be good looking. Ha!
(Look at the rather startled and "huh??" look on Gabrielles face.)
Xena sneering over Gabrielles reluctance to melt the Pax statue: That would be because youre a rank amateur...
(Now watch a hurt Gabrielle rankle at that...)
Xena to Autolycus: Get inside you buffoon.
(Later) That phoney disguise and that silly moustache...
(Later still) Hes so shallow...
Oh ha ha. Laughing so much it hurts...
Then there was their last form of humor: one-upmanship. A variation on the insult, this one we have seen pop up over the show, particularly in season two, about the time when Gabrielle and Xena were still getting to know each other, but knew how to get under the others skin and hit the others soft spots. Er, all in good fun though, right? Yeah well, either way, its ba-ack.
After the auction for the statue, the pair went at each other as if their bids actually meant something. Sheesh, it was all play dinars, for Elysias sake. Hard to tell though. Their vehemence surprised me at this point in their friendship - I rather thought theyd matured beyond childishly carrying on like a pair of competitive boys at a footy match. I thought they were past resorting to this form of one-upmanship to "get" the other. I obviously thought wrong.
Why is winning against the other such an important facet in this relationship? If you think its just harmless fun, it is - in part. But might I point out the problem with winning at these games is the other person, your best friend in this case, loses. So this friendship between Xena and Gabrielle appears to forever hinge on someone being gently belittled/hurt and the other feeling smug, day in, day out. Oh joy. I do hope they get over it sooner or later. Theyve been through too much together now to go back to season two character development.
All these points were actually not what earned this episode my low mark - they were merely the large-ish whimpers.
The anguish for me comes from a surprising quarter: Bruce Campbell (Autolycus).
Could anyone tell me when he was supposed to be doing drama? Because it was hard to tell. I never realised how badly Bruce does serious stuff. Little did I realise he only has two looks: the cocky and the frown.
His woodenness didnt half show through, here. Dont get me wrong - I have been an Autolycus fan, but I was as shocked as the next person to discover he just doesnt cut mustard in the serious league.
Heres the scene that ruined my enjoyment of the king thief forever:
Xena, woodenly, to Autolycus who has a knife at Tarsuss throat: "Dont do it." Autolycus, woodenly right back: "Stay outta this Xena..."
Insert Xena speech while he stares at her unblinkingly.
It was hard to see the forest for the trees in that. Xena, we forgive her her woodenness because we know Lucy can act and is deliberately playing it this way as the woman keeping her "dark mean chick" as she described it once, in check.
But Bruce, if ever there was a chance for him to shine, to show his range, to reach down and find an expression other than... el blando... this was it.
Heck if it wasnt for Xena running around and expressing concerns to Gabrielle that Autolycus was going back on his original plan and was instead out to kill Tarsus we wouldnt have been any the wiser. He looked fine a second ago...
Even at the party - his brothers killer stands before him and mocks him. So he... er, frowns. Again. He may have even swallowed to add to the moment.
(Speaking of which, as an aside, it was very odd neither Xena nor Gabrielle did anything but continue to look on goofily in that scene, even though both should have worked out this was Autolycuss nemesis before them. Their expressions didnt change either. What was this, some kind of Freeze That Look competition going on on set they didnt tell us about?)
Anyway, in sum, Bruce let the side down. If you dont believe me, just picture in your mind someone who really can act - say Tony Todd from The Lost Mariner... now can you imagine him holding a knife to his brothers killers throat, presumably ready to throw away his blood innocence ... and he shows this seething anger, pain, and years of pentup hostility in a ... pained frown?
Talk about underplaying your part.
Back to the niggles. In that same scene, Tarsus spies Xena, as Xena, for the first time. He doesnt even look surprised to see a strange leather-clad woman climbing through his windows (and one who looks remarkably similar to a whimpering woman he left tied up). Although he was otherwise occupied at the time.
Incidentally, did we all note how appropriate it was for Xena to be the one to talk Autolycus down from acting on his revenge streak? As if to highlight it, she is crouched in exactly the same position she was in to stare at Caesar during When In Rome...
OK, why do all departing thugs have to keep saying the same exit line: "Lets get outta here, shes too much for us..." Witness The Quill Is Mightier... for another example.
In conclusion, I know I have been exceptionally cruel this review and there were redeeming features. But small moments of fun, flashbacks to season two banter, and our bemusement at an impossibly unXena Xena doing the funny voice, do not take away from the fact that the scarcely building grand climax fizzled.
It fizzled because there was no explanation as to why Autolycus would suddenly decide to try revenge again; no explanation as to how Xena knew this was his new plan based on a single open cell window; and no acting from the key character above that of the common variety garden shrub, when the critical scene is suddenly thrust upon us out of nowhere.
This is why I weep: It could have been something real. Heck, even Ted Raimi (Joxer) stole the show in Comedy of Eros by knowing how to give a single, decent, stricken look (the fireside scene when Gabby mocks his love for her). Thats acting.
I pity everyone else who tried their guts out to make this ep work. But I say leave the plots like these to Hercules unless you have a better dramatic actor, remind Lucy that shes playing Xena and give Bruce the flippant fluff, wherein his talent lies. And then youre onto something fine.
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